INDIANAPOLIS - Doc Rivers never said he wanted his team to win pretty. He just asked his bunch to play with consistency, and they responded to his Thursday tirade with an ugly, but impressive, 86-72 victory over Indiana Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Celtics placed a vise grip on the Pacers, who had whipped the Oklahoma City Thunder the previous night, using punishing interior defense and leading the final 38 minutes.
After falling apart in the second half Thursday in Chicago, the Celtics overwhelmed the Pacers with balanced scoring, including 19 points off the bench from Ray Allen as the Big Three scored all but 2 Boston points in the fourth quarter.
And perhaps their focus carried into Sunday’s showdown with the second-place Philadelphia 76ers because the Big Three chose to leave postgame reaction to Rivers, who expressed pride in his team’s response.
“I love how competitive we were,’’ Rivers said. “If you compete like that every night, it’s what I told them afterwards, in a game where shots are not going in, and you can still win the game, that means you can trust your defense on nights that your offense doesn’t work, and that’s who we are.’’
The Celtics were frustrated offensively all evening. They shot just 42.1 percent and the quartet of Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley, and Rajon Rondo shot a combined 10 for 34. Luckily Greg Stiemsma and Sasha Pavlovic came off the bench for 18 points while Allen found his offensive touch after halftime.
Stiemsma finished with 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots, all in the second quarter. He helped limit mammoth center Roy Hibbert to 9 points on 3-for-9 shooting.
The Pacers trailed by double digits most of the night, but cut the deficit to 63-56 with nine minutes left. Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Allen were flawless down the stretch. Allen drained a 3-pointer for a 70-58 lead and then followed with a final statement, another long ball with 4:15 left.
After scoring a combined 19 points in his first two games back after missing six with an ankle injury, Allen appeared more comfortable in his bench role.
“We got him good shots, and I told him it’s going to take a couple of games, you’re still trying to get your legs back,’’ Rivers said. “I thought in the second half you could see that he had a breakthrough. And I thought that was terrific.’’
The Celtics are trying to catch Indiana for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and trail by two games with 11 to play.
Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points and Garnett scored 13 of his 15 points after halftime.
Pierce attempted to take control in the third quarter with 9 of the team’s first 13 points for a 55-40 lead. But his field goal at the 5:17 mark was the team’s last of the period, and the Pacers, led by trade-deadline acquisition Leandro Barbosa, sliced the lead to 6 late in the quarter.
The Celtics hung onto their lead despite going nearly four minutes without a point. Pierce extended the lead to 59-51 with two free throws, withstanding another Indiana run. The Celtics shifted their focus to defense and Indiana shot 8 for 21 in the final quarter, including going 2 of 10 on 3-pointers.
“We called a timeout and that’s what we talked about. I said, ‘Guys, don’t let anyone ruin a good day for you. You are having a good day, just stay in the moment with the basketball. All the other stuff will take care of itself,’ ’’ Rivers said.
“I thought our guys did a good job of that. It’s easy to lose your composure on the road when you don’t think things are going well.’’
“Give Doc Rivers a lot of credit for turning their season around by revamping their defense,’’ said Indiana coach Frank Vogel, a former Celtics assistant coach.
“They’re playing at a very, very high level. They have a championship coach and a championship core. They know how to get it done. Every time we made a run, it was a Ray Allen 3 or a Paul Pierce bucket.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.